Michael Faraday

Some years ago a colleague and I read a short paper at the Institution of Electrical Engineers at Savoy Place, next to the Savoy Hotel in London. The paper described some equipment my older colleague had developed and I had subsequently modernised and improved. (He had patented the device and my part became a patent of addition). It was agreed that I would read the paper and he would take questions, which suited me as with his greater experience he was good at the quick answer.

On the day all the speakers sat in the front row of the lecture theatre, and our main competitors were within earshot. Their paper was read by their Sales Manager, who made some extreme claims for their design. These were challenged by someone from the audience. The Sales Manager turned to his technical colleagues and said “how do I answer this?” His colleagues were probably annoyed that he had insisted on presenting their work, and laughed at him and said “You said it, you explain it”. He stood to answer and could only bluster and admit that he could not justify his claims. I looked up at the busts and portraits of the venerable founders of electrical technology, who looked upon us with austere gaze, as if they had always been careful with the truth and were shocked by this exhibition by the speaker.

Of interest is that in the early days of the BBC they leased rooms from the Institution at Savoy Place, and the nearby Savoy Theatre was illuminated by electric filament lamps.

One of the busts looking down on us that day was of Michael Faraday, and his statue also stands outside the Institution (now renamed the Institution of Engineering and Technology). In 1831 Faraday took an iron ring wound with two separate coils of wire and passed an electric current through one coil. He connected the other coil to a sensitive instrument, a galvanometer, and noted that a transient current was produced in this second coil. When the first coil was disconnected a similar transient current was produced, but in the opposite direction. Faraday had produced the first electric transformer, a device which is present in many of our radios, televisions and chargers for our various devices. Transformers are frequently used in the electricity distribution network, and may be seen mounted on poles, or housed near our estates, possibly emitting a low humming noise. Much of my working life was involved with the design and manufacture of transformers and other electromagnetic devices, hence my interest in Faraday.

Later in 1831 Faraday discovered that moving a permanent magnet in and out of a coil could generate an electric current. This formed the basis of the generators which produce all our mains electricity.

Faraday was born in 1791 in Southwark, the son of a blacksmith, and his schooling was no more than ‘the three Rs’. The family had joined the Sandemanian church, which dissented with the Anglican Church. At the age of thirteen Faraday commenced work as an errand boy for George Riebau, who ran a bookshop and stationers, publishing and binding books. Faraday was apprenticed to Riebau in 1805 and was able to read about chemistry and perform experiments. When his apprenticeship ended in 1812 he worked for another bookbinder at a guinea and half per week. Faraday attended evening scientific lectures at one shilling per lecture and wrote up notes of the lectures in four books. Riebau showed the notes to a customer, William Dance, who was so impressed that he gave Faraday tickets for the last four lectures by Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution in 1812. Again Faraday wrote up notes of these lectures and sent them to Davy, then knighted, which resulted in his interviewing Faraday in 1813 for a position at the Royal Institution. At the Royal Institution Faraday undertook chemical research, and then electrical research. He developed the first basic electric motor and a very basic generator.

Faraday became a Fellow of the Royal Institution in 1824. He became friendly with Prince Albert, who frequently chaired lectures at the Institution from 1849. He was scientific advisor to the Admiralty, and also scientific advisor to Trinity House, involved in lighthouses incorporating electric lighting.

Faraday married Sarah Barnard, daughter of a Sandemanian silversmith in 1812. They had no children. He died in 1867.

Despite his humble origins Faraday’s research led to discoveries and inventions which have enhanced much of our modern lifestyle.

I have relied heavily in this account on “Michael Faraday – a Very Short Introduction” by Frank A.J.L. James (Oxford University Press).

Bridport History Society will learn about “The life of Jerusalem Warren” from Kevin Shillington at 2.30pm on Tuesday 11th March in the Main Hall, Bridport United Church, East Street. All welcome, visitors entrance £2.50, including closing tea and biscuits.

Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society, Tel: 01308 456876